When a play is based upon something dull – some obscure historical event or niche political case – one inevitably cuts it some slack. A musical based on EU fishing regulation is unlikely to thrill. Hell, even The Book of Mormon sounded underwhelming on paper, which goes to show that the concept behind a work is no guide for whether it will dazzle or dull the mind. It does, however, inform our expectations.
Houdini: The Art of Escape suffers in this regard. By taking the life of Harry Houdini, world famous magician, iconoclast and revolutionary illusionist, as its topic, one can’t help but expect magic. While this is a charming production, magic it ain’t.
Houdini: The Art of Escape combines mime with puppetry, according to its programme. Mime there is and lots of it, but puppetry I couldn’t spot. Perhaps it didn’t make it over when this show moved from Barcelona to London. Instead, we have Houdini (Felipe Cabezas) occasionally donning a mask or holding up a silent film dialogue frame with some scene-setting detail like ‘Budapest, 1874’ while, for the most part, Cabezas must navigate a small stage with a very sparse set, injecting meaning into a narrow range of actions. His efforts are valiant.
Cabezas has a great line in Charlie Chaplin-esque facial expressions, bringing colour and complexity to what would otherwise be – forgive the bathos – one man silently shuffling around a stage. Cabezas’ gestures vary delicately enough for comedy and tragedy, but they can’t do the impossible: they can’t make this show gripping. Nor can they transform a one-man mime into a multi-character narrative. The inevitable impact of choosing mime for this show’s format is that it offers extraordinarily little insight into Houdini’s interiority.
It’s not as though Houdini was a mystery to us, so historically or geographically distant that we cannot hope to guess who he was. The man grew up in Wisconsin, was world-famous in his day, the subject of countless films and stories. In 2014 he was the subject of an acclaimed TV mini-series with Adrien Brody, and the story of his death has to be among the best-known out there. Houdini: The Art of Escape establishes an interest in discovering the man behind the hype – a man who is real and utterly approachable within the realms of art – but pulls back to reveal only smoke and mirrors.
It opens and closes with a séance scene, constructed through some rather wandering voice-over conversations between Houdini’s wife Bess and a French medium. The séance attempts a clever joke (can the great escapologist escape death itself?) but offers limited possibilities for Cabezas, who does as good a job as anyone could of miming the anguish of a soul passed out of this world, within the space and time restraints of a sweaty mid-afternoon fringe slot (in other words, not a great one).
The dialogue between Bess (Mrs Houdini) and the medium are diffuse and a little distracted. Bess implores Houdini to “say the code”. Given that this feels like the ‘point’ motivating the entire endeavour, our eyes and ears are naturally primed for the code’s arrival. It turns out to consist not of other-worldly intuition, telepathy or telekinesis, but a bit of overly-portentous air-piano-playing. The problem with miming along to discrete sounds? If you are out of time, it will show. Miming without timing just doesn’t delight. Not only is Cabezas timing less than precise, but he mimes playing lower notes with his right hand and higher with his left – a minor but grating inaccuracy. When a show omits speech or character interaction, shining the spotlight upon ever narrower aspects of theatrecraft, it had better get them right.
Mime at its best is a game of illusions. The mime artists creates an impression of physical objects being present, actions being performed, letting us imagine they really are there. Houdini: The Art of Escape achieves the opposite. It calls itself Houdini but leaves the person shrouded in secrecy, speaks of escape while its protagonist is trapped, and it places the man himself upon the stage, yet creates the impression he is not there at all.
Houdini: the Art of Escape is playing the Etcetera Theatre until 30 August. For more information and tickets, see the Camden Fringe website. Photo by Etcetera Theatre.